It Takes One: Bill Lesch

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Stewardship Stories

It Takes One: Bill Lesch

It Takes One: Bill Lesch
Nov 27, 2017
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I could make this bio a list of accomplishments, degrees, shows, collections, but what is the point? It won’t tell you why I take pictures or how I got started – what inspires me and keeps me working. I grew up in Indiana and spent childhood summers at a cottage on Lake Wawasee. As a child I studied the streaks the sun made in the water, the shapes of clouds in the sky. This takes time, the time to live in the present. The adult world works relentlessly to steal that time from us. I have spent the past 40 years chasing that timelessness by photographing the Earth I love. It is the language I speak. I make pictures because when I am working everything else drops away. I study shapes, colors, clouds, water, and light moving in a dance before me. There is a radiance to this world, a light we are privileged to witness only occasionally. It is what the poet Annie Dillard spoke of seeing when her ordinary backyard tree was transformed one morning into the “tree with the lights in it.” For an instant, she saw the world as it truly is: radiant energy. It is the pursuit of this radiance that keeps me working.

Can you identify and define a cultural landscape in your community?

The TCLF website lists four types of cultural landscapes. I believe the Grand Canyon falls under all four. Architect Mary Colter’s designs for the native stone structures of Phantom Ranch and Desert Watchtower would seem to qualify as Designed Landscape. The Havasupai tribe has lived in the Inner Canyon since pre-Columbian times, as did the native Anasazi Indians, and they are certainly Ethnic Cultures. Historic Site seems covered too considering the Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders. However, the last type, Vernacular Landscape, is the one that interests me most. I believe almost everyone who has ever traveled the entire 240-mile length of the river would testify that the bottom of the Grand Canyon is one of the largest Vernacular Cathedrals on Earth; a holy place worth every ounce of preservation and protection we can muster.

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North Canyon Pool, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ - Photo by Bill Lesch, 2014

Why did you get involved in this cultural landscape?

I live in Tucson, a desert town within the Colorado River watershed. The water that provides life to Tucson flows through the Grand Canyon on its way to me and my family. Like most desert dwellers I consider water sacred. Rivers, streams, lakes and oceans are places of pilgrimage for me. In addition to being a Southwestern landscape photographer I am also a kayaker. When the opportunity to go on a river trip down the Grand Canyon came my way in 2008, I grabbed my cameras and my kayak and never looked back. Since that trip I have been down the Canyon four more times, each trip two weeks long – 240 river miles of living in the present. The river guides have a name for the Canyon; they call it The Big Ditch. It seems derogatory at first, until you realize the respect they hold, their love of place. It is the Biggest Ditch, a place unto itself, timeless, where you ditch your schedules, cell phone, appointments. When you are in the Canyon you are there on its terms. The river and the weather set your schedule and control your life for two weeks. Time begins to stretch out to eternity. During these visits I am starting to know the place, to learn a way of working there. I try to express the feeling of the landscape, as perhaps the Anasazi knew it, to see what lies behind the curtain of spectacular views around every bend. When I am down there I work like a madman. As soon as the boats pull into shore I am out with my cameras and tripods, and I am invariably the last one piling in the next morning. It’s as if I can’t get enough of the place. It now occupies a place in my heart and soul. I am reminded of the artist Hokusai, who said that if he lived to be 100 he might yet learn to truly paint water. I hope to photograph in the Canyon until I am 100 and maybe then I will scratch the surface.

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Marble Canyon Time Lapse Montage, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ - Photo by Bill Lesch, 2016

How did your understanding of this landscape change as a result of your efforts? Do you think the understanding of others has changed as well?

Not everyone will raft through the Grand Canyon or gaze into its depths. I make these photographs to show people something of what the Canyon has taught me. The 'zen gardens' of the natural world existed before humankind and will exist long after we are gone. All of our art, architecture, parks and gardens have their source in the natural world, in places that are now threatened, places like the Grand Canyon. At the bottom of the Canyon, standing among rocks two billion years old, you realize how insignificant we are. To the Canyon, all of human history is dust on the wind, a thin layer somewhere between the Pleistocene and whatever age will come next. We are ghosts in that landscape of time, and we honor and preserve the Grand Canyon to remind ourselves of our place, to preserve our humility. Cultural landscapes are in a sense our holy places. Many of them are now under threat from those who have no respect, who see the land not as their home to be protected but as just another way to make a profit. It is this mindset that needs to change. We need to come to the realization that every landscape on Earth is someone’s homeland, is someone’s cultural landscape worthy of protection.

What is the message that you would like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?

You would expect a National Park as renowned as the Grand Canyon to be safe from exploitation. You would be wrong. Just this past month, the Navajo Tribal Council voted down a proposal by a group of Phoenix developers planning a Disneyland-style Resort Hotel and Tramway from the Rim to the River in the depths of the Canyon. Meanwhile, under the guise of national defense, the Forest Service is considering opening both rims to Uranium mining, which threatens the health of the entire Canyon ecosystem. There are ways you can help oppose these assaults. The Grand Canyon Trust has been doing a masterful job of protecting the Canyon since 1985, and now more than ever it needs donations and members. American Whitewater protects rivers and watersheds nationwide and is a great non-profit working to inform about issues within your own local watershed.

The best long-term strategy to protect these landscapes lies in changing our cultural gestalt, in reconnecting with place and in realizing that we all live within both a manmade and a natural community. Artists, writers, musicians and photographers are recognizing what landscape architects have always known: the importance of our connection with the natural world. They need our support as much as or more than the non-profit groups if we want to truly save these places. It is through music, through art and writing and healing spaces that minds are opened. Pictures, sculptures, poetry, song… these can go where words cannot, and it is through these that change can happen.

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Nankoweap Overlook, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ - Photo by Bill Lesch, 2012

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